Gen Z don’t mourn the past – we try to redeem it | Bridget McArthur
II’m Gen Z and I don’t understand what older generations expect of us. We’re either the laziest generation ever and must learn to pick ourselves up by our boots, or objects of pity as we soak up nostalgia for the ‘simpler times’ they enjoyed, gazing at the desert of a future. Oh, and we’re way too PC too.
For some reason, it’s pity more than contempt that’s been setting me back lately. With the return of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill to our airwaves and the incorporation of the mullet, the number of hot takes on young people’s apparent infatuation with the past is reaching its peak.
Take this Business Insider article explaining that “young people get nostalgic when the economy is struggling, looking for comfort and connection.” Or the conclusion of two Australian academics that young consumers are “immersive[ing] themselves into ’80s pop culture to deal with their melancholic affection and sentimental longing for that time in the past” and “to pretend that they were really part of that historical time.”
“And you’re not even pretending well!” those who lived at the time weep, crying out that the facts were incorrect.
But maybe that’s the point. We are not trying to reproduce or relive the past. We try to update it, even rewrite it. We say I’m going to take your fashion and elevate you about female empowerment, gender fluidity, and the people on the catwalks and on TV who truly look like us. The Gen Z trend is about cultural reinterpretation as a form of empowerment.
Nostalgia (which translates into the pain of returning home, a condition once diagnosed in nostalgic mercenary soldiers) speaks of a sense of loss or longing. For young people, the current trend is about what we can gain or even redeem from the past, not a mourning for what is lost. As a generation defined by our activism and progressive beliefs, the concept of yearning for “simpler times” simply does not take into account. How can we be the generation most likely to identify as LGBTQIA+ and LGBTQIA+ rights advocate, but at the same time want to go back to the 90s when same-sex marriage was illegal and Ellen was kicked off the air for being “too gay”?
In fact, what we do seems closer to taking what our parents did and stabbing a knife to see what rings true and what bleeds, or reclaiming aspects of cultural history that weren’t previously accessible to everyone.
An example that was ripe for millennial backlash it’s the return of low-rise jeans. And I completely understand the trauma. As some have underlineit was a fashion trend to show off your flat stomach at a time when Marissa Cooper was the ideal.
But that’s exactly what many Gen Z Promoters of the low-rise comeback tour are trying to subvert. Take this TikTok by Spencer Barbosa, 19, responding to the comment that ‘only people with flat stomachs can wear low waists’. In the caption of the video, she replies “the clothes have no morphology”. And that’s true. Societies have a body type, not clothes. By putting items once limited to ultra-skinny cis white women on a wider range of bodies, Gen Z is trying to expand that definition of body type.
At the same time, high-waisted jeans are far from “out”. You still see them everywhere, from the streets to the Fashion Week shows. It’s all about choice now – what’s comfortable and what suits your personal style – rather than sinking into a common trend. It’s a push towards the democratization of fashion. Our own friends are just as much personal trendsetters as they are celebrities, because platforms like Instagram have given us all space to develop our own aesthetic portfolios.
It’s created a generational view of fashion that’s much more inclusive and less cut-throat. I can’t really think of many trends that are actually “out” – other than fur and, hopefully, increasingly, fast fashion. It is also less fixed. We don a different look every day — or even several looks mixed together — rather than committing to just one for a period of our lives.
The so-called “nostalgia” trend can also be understood in the larger context of Gen Z’s love of mimicry and intertextual references. Take the popularity of memes and, more recently, TikTok. It’s about recreating your own version of something. Then your own version of a version of something. The references are often so profound that I’m not surprised those unaware of digital culture confuse their mockery with an homage.
Finally, the nostalgic narrative seems to overlook the fact that many of the reanimated trends for the 2020s are actually common sense given the moment we find ourselves in. We wear a 2000s outfit because we want to be sustainable while shopping. (and apparently plenty of low-rise jeans were for sale). We use flip phones because we’re trying to be more conscious of our use of technology. We buy records because more money is going to artists than, say, Spotify. And mullets are back and in the mainstream, not because we all wish we lived in the 80s, but because we are generally moving as a society towards a more genderless style.
So to the cooing older generations that we must be nostalgic for a pre-pandemic, pre-climate change, pre-housing crisis world (themselves indulging in pity porn while doing nothing to actually absolve the crises they bequeathed to us) I answer: the children are fine. All in all, I feel lucky with the age I grew up. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than coming of age in a time when heroin chic was all the rage and women on screen were lucky if they had a name. only one personality. Far from being a practice of escapism, our interest in the past is much more about the lessons we can draw from it – both good and bad – as well as a perhaps more morbid recognition of things that have not not progressed as much as before. They should have.
Let’s keep our condescension for those who talk fervently about the “good old days”. Most often, these are the types of people who are truly nostalgic for times when men were macho, women servile and milk tasted like real milk.